The United States started out as thirteen small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original thirteen states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.
Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don't regard our country as a "warrior nation" or "garrison state." Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that "a just war is far better for a man's soul than the most prosperous peace"), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama in part because they thought he would be different than his predecessor on a host of issues, but especially in his approach to the use of armed force. It was clear to nearly everyone that George W. Bush had launched a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq, and then compounded the error by mismanaging it (and the war in Afghanistan too). So Americans chose a candidate who had opposed Bush's war in Iraq and bring U.S. commitments back in line with our resources. Above all, Americans thought Barack Obama would be a lot more thoughtful about where and how to use force, and that he understood the limits of this crudest of policy tools. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have thought so too, when they awarded him the Peace Prize not for anything he had done, but for what they hoped he might do henceforth.
Yet a mere two years later, we find ourselves back in the fray once again. Since taking office, Barack Obama has escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and launched a new war against Libya. As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun. At first we hoped that most of the guns would be in the hands of the Europeans, or the hands of the rebel forces arrayed against Qaddafi, but it's increasingly clear that U.S. military forces, CIA operatives and foreign weapons supplies are going to be necessary to finish the job.
Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "stain the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it) was slight.
It remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million/day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.